Of Pirates

Surely, dear readers, you’ve been following the recent uproar over piracy in the waters off Somalia. Especially, the capture and dramatic rescue of merchant marine Captain Richard Phillips. A rescue that was celebrated with blasts from the horn of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy‘s training vessel.

The Academy is Phillips’s alma mater.

And it is located on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts – where 17 out of every 10 of the tourist attractions has a pirate theme.

Hey. We the People love pirates. Especially those pirates active in the Caribbean during the 17th and early 18th centuries, the so-called Great Age of Piracy from whom most of the romanticized outlaws of fiction have sprung: Long John Silver, Conrad, Hook, Jack Sparrow. Consider the popularity of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies. All those sports teams with pirate-inspired nicknames, particularly “Pirates” (of course) and “Buccaneers”. (Which is not what their earrings cost. At least, I hope, for the sake of their health, it was not.) The rafts of pirate-inspired romance novels.

Alas, writes David Cordingly, the author of Under the Black Flag, the sober historian finds little support for the romance in those novels, even for the most notorious captains such as Sir Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, and William Kidd.

From him, I learned what I already suspected. That the lives of real pirates were short on glamor, romance, and time, and long on brutality and violence. That the men and women who sailed under the Jolly Roger were neither noble rebels nor cartoon villains.

They were terrorists. Which is what we’re calling the Somali practitioners of the art.

And they were in it for the money, the legit livelihoods available to them having been taken away, or reduced to starvation wages, by earlier iterations of the current economic downturn.

Which is what the Somali pirates are in it for, the legit livelihoods available to them having been taken away by the collapse of Somali central government and the larger-scale piracy of Somali waters by the fishing fleets and trash haulers of “developed” nations.

What I had not previously known was the organization of the terrorist organization known as a pirate vessel in the Great Age of Piracy. Those vessels were as large and imposing as the pirates could manage to steal, and they crammed as many men on board as possible. They could therefore promise to overwhelm the skeleton crews of most merchant vessels, and fulfill the promise if necessary. It was seldom necessary.

(Somali pirate vessels, in contrast, are small and seemingly insignificant, and their crews are small. Then again, one dude with an AK-47 can make one hell of an impression, and make it a hell of a lot faster, and cheaper, than 100 men with cutlasses.)

Obviously, though, that many men on a boat, the largest of which wouldn’t be considered big enough, today, to carry three software billionaires, is a recipe for trouble unless there’s a strong and effective organization in place. And, contrary to what you might expect, that organization was not based on despotic rule.

Instead, each voyage was conducted under a set of written articles, signed (willy-nilly) by every member of the crew. Each signer was then entitled to vote on all matters relevant to the craft and its maintenance. The crew voted the captain in (and out), the cruise route, the rations, codes of behavior and the punishment for violations, the distribution of plunder, and the compensation due those injured.

In other words, at a time in the history of the world when most governments were headed by absolute monarchs, these ocean-going vessels represented the planet’s most able and active democracies, embodying liberty, equality and brotherhood a century before the American and French revolutions. Democracies of violent men, which existed solely for the sake of plunder, for the unrepentant robbery of the wealth of others.

Did somebody say something about Iraq?

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


  1. I suppose you are right…my childhood dream of what a pirate should be…the swashbuckler type…is so ruined because of all this…damn them and their AK-47’s and democracy on water

  2. Who was pirate and who was victim in America’s interaction with Iraq? I am holding little hope that the U.S. comes out as the good guy when history writes the final answer to that question.

  3. Thom, begging your pardon, but history and Errol Flynn are not on speaking terms. The only real difference between Black Bart and Abdi Garad is that “black” was not the color of Bartholomew Robert‘s skin.

    Q, that will depend on who writes the history, as usual. From the Islamic point of view, there’s little question – although it will depend to some extent on how much use the writer has for Iraq and Iraqis, which may not be much. I got the photo from my favorite photographer. :*

    Thom, I would prefer it if history were a matter of science, rather than Ambrose Bierce’s “broad-gauge gossip”. But it will never happen in America, because most of Us couldn’t stand being faced with the reality of who and what We are.

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